More on Joseph Smith’s “Near-Death Experience”

March 20, 2015
I mentioned in my earlier post that I had stolen a good chunk of information about the account of Charles Stoddard regarding William Law’s alleged shooting attempt against Joseph Smith in 1844. This same friend, who is an active member of the LDS church, sent me some further information, so I thought I would share it here.
The Stoddard tale is an interesting bit of folklore. As has been noted, there are two versions of the story: the spurious Sarah Stoddard journal and an affidavit sworn by Charles Stoddard’s granddaughter and great-grandaughter in 1949 (included in Mark L. McConkie’s compilation, Remembering Joseph). [The affidavit can be read here.]

So, the story as told in the Deseret News seems to be derived from the one from this affidavit, which was made some 30 years after the story’s origin (if my friend is correct that the story dates from after 1918).

If you subtract the gun play, Charles Stoddard’s story has certain similarities to Dennison Lott Harris’s story, which was recounted in an article called “Conspiracy of Nauvoo” that appeared in the April 1884 issue of The Contributor (the New Era of its day). The author of the piece, Horace Cummings, said that he heard Harris relate the story in 1883 and was so impressed by it that he wrote it down afterward in his journal. Later, after learning that The Contributor was offering a prize for a Christmas story, he “extended [his] journal account somewhat and wrote [the] article in competition for the prize.”

In the story, Harris and his friend, Robert Scott, attend secret meetings at William Law’s house as spies for Joseph Smith. There are three meetings. Before the third meeting, Joseph warns them not to enter into any secret oaths. Then, as the account has it, “after a pause of some moments, he added: ‘Boys, this will be their last meeting, and they may shed your blood, but I hardly think they will, as you are so young. If they do, I will be a lion in their path! Don’t flinch. If you have to die; die like men; you will be martyrs to the cause, and your crowns can be no greater.'” Sure enough, at the meeting, everyone is required to swear an oath dedicating themselves to Joseph Smith’s destruction. Everyone takes the oath but the two boys. The enraged mob clamors for their blood: they must take the oath or be killed. When they refuse again, the Law brothers and Austin Cowles frog-march them down to the cellar to slit their throats. Then, at the last moment, someone in the crowd yells—”as if by Divine interposition”—to halt the proceedings. The boys are reluctantly given a reprieve. They will be allowed to leave but must never speak of what they have seen or they will be killed on sight. Joseph, meanwhile, fearing for the boys’ safety, concealed himself along the river bank with one of his bodyguards, just out of sight of Law’s men. There’s a joyful reunion and the boys relate everything they had seen and heard to the grateful Prophet. Cummings’s article closes with the declaration that it “is a true recital of events that actually transpired.” This affirmation is somewhat undercut, however, by the postscript: “That which is elevating and ennobling in its tendency is necessarily true.”

So, it’s a nice story, but even the originator seems to take it with a grain of salt.

So according to Mormon folklore, the Law-Higbee-Foster et al. conspiracy against Joseph Smith was discovered by one or more courageous youths. Contemporary records, however, tell a different story. On 24 March 1844, Wilford Woodruff recorded in his journal the following remarks made by the Prophet:

“I have been informed by two gentleman that a conspiricy is got up in this place for the purpose of taking the life of President Joseph Smith his family and all the Smith family & the heads of the Church. One of the gentleman will give his name to the public & the other wishes it to be hid for the present. They will both testify to it on oath & make an affidavit upon it. The names of the persons revealed at the head of the conspiracy are as follows: (Chancy Higby Dr Foster, Mr Jackson, Wm. & Wilson Law). And the lies that Higby has hatched up as a foundation to work upon is, he says that I had mens heads Cut off in Missouri & that I had a sword run through the hearts of the people that I wanted to kill & put out of the way. I wont sware out a warrent against them for I don’t fear any of them. They would not scare of an old setting hen. I intend to publish all the iniquity that I know of. If I am guilty I am ready to bear it. Their is honor among enemies. I am willing to do any thing for the good of the people. I will give the names of one of the gentleman who have divulged the plot. His name is Eaton. He will sware to it. He is a bold fellow. Jackson said a Smith should not be alive 2 weeks not over two months any how. As concerning the Character of these men I will say nothing about it now but If I hear any thing more from them on this subject I will tell what I know about them.”

Joseph’s informants were M.G. Eaton and Abiathar Williams (see Times and Seasons, 15 May 1844, 541)—not Charles Stoddard, Dennison Harris, or Robert Scott. But I suppose, if the folklore is elevating and ennobling in its tendency, then it is necessarily true ;)

So, even in the 1880s they understood that some truths are not very useful, but some untruths can be uplifting.

What I wonder is how the story came to be appropriated by the Stoddard family, when the original, which seems pretty obviously made up, doesn’t have anything to do with Charles Stoddard or his family.  But it seems fairly common for family histories to insert themselves, Forrest Gump-like, into important events based on proximity. In other words, the Stoddards were in Nauvoo during the time of Joseph Smith’s murder, so surely they had a part in defending the prophet.

Several years ago, I read a biography of Frederick G. Williams called After One Hundred Years, published in the 1940s. It was written by a woman named Nancy Williams, who was a Williams by marriage only. She devotes an entire chapter to the Williamses’ likely involvement in the War of 1812, describing battles and ships and heroism. Only there is absolutely no evdience that anyone in the Williams family took part in that war. True, they lived in Kirtland, Ohio, which was near the Great Lakes, and William Wheeler Williams, Frederick’s father, had been involved in shipping on the lakes at one time. But there’s nothing to suggest he or anyone else in the family fought in the war, let alone served with heroic distinction. Basically, then, Mrs. Williams decided that, because he was near the action, William must have been involved. I think that’s the same thing that has happened with the Stoddard family. Maybe Charles was part of the Whistling and Whittling Brigade, or maybe he knew Joseph Smith or William Law personally Who knows?

P.S. For what it’s worth, here is an excerpt from a letter William Law wrote to Isaac Hill on 20 July 1844:

. . . My family and myself are all well, and have enjoyed good health and peace since we left Nauvoo, although the events which have transpired Since, were very shocking to my feeling/s\ yet, as they \(J&H)/ brought it upon themselves, and I used my influence to prevent any outrage Even from the Commencement of the Excitement, believing that the Civil Law had power to Expose iniquity, and punish the wicked I say Consequently, I look on Calmly, and while the wicked slay the wicked, I believe I can see the hand of a blasphemed God stretched out in judgment, the cries of inocence and virtue have ascended up before the throne of God, and he has taken Sudden vengeance.
I am as ever—
Respectfully Yours,
Wm. Law.

(William Law letter to Isaac Hill, 20 July 1844, MS 3473, CHL)

This sounds more like the William Law known from his actual words and actions. While I find his apparent satisfaction with the “vengeance” of God to be more than a little distasteful, he isn’t the foul-mouthed drunkard of the Stoddard and Harris accounts. You would think that, after everything that happened, if William Law had really conspired to kill Joseph Smith, he would have been just a little more proud of his accomplishment. What I find revealing is that Law basically left Mormonism and the Mormons alone after the deaths of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. Although he had plenty of opportunities to “expose” and denounce the LDS church later, he never spoke publicly about it until some 40 years later, when he was interviewed about his involvement with the Latter-day Saint movement.  You can read what he said in “Three Letters from William Law on Mormonism.” [Please note that my link is not an endorsement of Maze Ministry. I’m only linking to it because it’s the complete text.]

 


Of Ngrams and Diaries

March 18, 2015

Pretty much this whole post will be based on (OK, plagiarized from) a thread I saw this morning on a message board. Still, it’s fascinating, and I thought I should draw attention to it.

Yesterday’s Deseret News had an article entitled 13 Little-Known Facts about Joseph Smith. Number 6 on the list was a reported “near-death experience” Joseph had thanks to arch-apostate William Law.

“Apostate William Law attempted to kill Joseph and fired a pistol at him six times at close range. It misfired six times, and he then pointed it at a post and all six shots discharged properly.” Charles H. Stoddard, “Remembering Joseph,” 74

Just as the poster on the message board, I was perplexed because I had never heard of this, and it seemed pretty counter to William Law’s character and personality. So, I looked up the references the poster had cited, and I found a diary that Charles Stoddard’s mother, Sarah, had written between 1843 and 1844. Here’s the entire diary:

Dear Diary,

Charles stopped in for a few minutes today. Said Sister Emma was worried about the prophet being arrested so frequently. This is the umpteenth time in the past few months. Of course they never can hold him for any length of time since he isn’t guilty of any of the charges brought against him. We hear rumors of more violent mob action and the rumors seem more persistent. Perhaps that is why Sister Emma is worried.

October 1843

Charles is surely privileged to have the opportunity of being so closely associated with the prophet and sister Emma. He admires and loves them both. The prophet is such a kindly man though Charles says he has seen his anger rise. All he has to contend with, is it any wonder? Wrathful outsiders as well as weak and selfish people right among our own ranks. Being a prophet of the Lord, I guess, makes him able to deal with all those whom he comes in contact in a just and noble way. There are many among us who would gladly give our lives that the prophet might be spared the humiliations he has to undergo at the hands of the so-called “law.” Seems like people either love the prophet or hate him. Suppose that is because he is such a great man – yes, for he is our prophet.

December 1843

Charles had a dreadful experience last night. Porter Rockwell escaped from jail. He was taken there on mistaken identity of the prophet. When the sheriff finally discovered the mistake, he kept Porter in jail to teach him a lesson, so he said. Many months he was unjustly held. They gave him very meager fare, mostly just bread and water. He was terribly thin and weakened; his hair was long and matted with filth and his body swarming with lice. Not once did they give him anything with which to clean himself, but left him to stench in his own dirt. Charles said the prophet cried when he saw Brother Rockwell and he hugged him in spite of his condition like he was a beloved child. Charles and Brother Richards helped to clean Brother Rockwell after they had burned the rags he had one time called clothes. They had a terrible time with his hair; it was so snarled and filthy. They had decided the best thing to do was to shave his head but the prophet intervened and then he promised Brother Rockwell that as long as he did not cut his hair our enemies would have no power over him. Porter Rockwell is an uncouth man, even vile of tongue but the prophet discerns men for what they are inside and though Charles says he reprimands Brother Rockwell at times for his bad language he still loves and respects him and trusts him as much as he does anyone, even the apostles.

January 1844

Charles is young to be given so much responsibility (just turned 14), but his experiences have made him old for his years. I hate to see Charles put in such a precarious position but if this is where the prophet thinks he can be of greatest service then it must be so. I have never doubted but what the prophet knows what is best for us all. May my faith ever be as strong as it is now though we have very little of worldly goods having moved from New Jersey to Ohio to Nauvoo in so short a time. Still our physical needs are provided. We feel rich in the spirit and our faith in God and in His church grows with each passing day. But back to Charles. Mr. William Law is known to be wanting a houseboy, so the prophet has told our son to take the position and to keep his eyes and ears open. The prophet feels Mr. Law bodes only evil to him and to the Church, him being so resentful to the prophet and having been excommunicated.

February 1844

Charles doesn’t like his work at the Laws. He says the riffraff of Nauvoo drink and carouse all night and lay plans for what unpleasant things they can do to the Mormons in general and the prophet in particular. The boy looks tired, up most of the night so he can keep the prophet posted on Mr. Law’s plans and then working by day. He’s growing so fast right now, too, and should be getting his rest.

April 1844

Charles had another faith promoting experience. Early this morning, even while the darkness still hemmed out the light of day, Mr. Law, after he had been drinking and planning with his associates through the night, got Charles out of bed to clean and oil his gun for he said he was going to shoot the prophet, only William Law called him “old Joe Smith.” Poor Charles was frightened beyond description but Mr. Law stood over him and prodded him with his foot when Charles hesitated through fright and anxiety. Finally when Mr. Law was satisfied with the way the gun was working, he put one bullet in. He boasted that he could kill the prophet with one shot and sent Charles to bring the prophet.

He ran as fast as he could and delivered the message but begged the prophet not to go to Mr. Law’s as Mr. Law was drunk and Charles was afraid he would carry though on his threat to shoot the prophet in cold blood. In spite of Charles’ protestations the prophet rose from bed and dressed.

It was breaking dawn by this time. As they walked the few blocks from the mansion house to the Law residence the prophet reassured Charles that no harm would come to him that day. Charles was frightened and he said it kept racing through his mind “I am the one that cleaned the gun that is going to be used to kill the prophet” until he was sick with fear. The prophet in a final attempt to calm my dear son uttered the fateful words, “Mr. Law may some day kill me, Charles, but it won’t be today’

As they approached their destination Mr. Law came staggering out of the house and his only greeting was angry boasts of what he intended to do. The prophet said kindly and unafraid, “You sent for me, Mr. Law?” to which Mr. Law replied with oaths that he had and that he was now going to do Nauvoo, Illinois, and indeed the whole world a great favor by disposing of the prophet with one shot.

Calmly the prophet unbuttoned his shirt and bared his chest, then said, “I’m ready now, Mr. Law.” Charles said at this point he nearly fainted. Fear strangled him until he was speechless and paralyzed, unable to move a muscle.

Mr. Law paced a few steps, turned, aimed, and pressed the trigger. There was complete silence, then the air rang with profanity and Mr. Law turned on Charles, accusing him of fixing the gun so it would not go off and threatening to kill even Charles, my innocent, frightened, but faithful son. The prophet, to divert Mr. Law’s blame of Charles suggested that a can be placed on the fence post for Mr. Law to take a practice shot. Relieved, Charles ran for a can and laid it on its side on the post. Mr Law paced back, took aim and fired. His ‘one shot’ streaked through the exact center of the bottom of that can. Mr. Law is well-known for his marksmanship even when drunk. Even Mr. Law was quiet as if stunned.

The prophet buttoned up his shirt, gave Charles a meaningful look and then said, “If you are finished with me now, Mr. Law, I have other things needing to be done. Good morning.”

At first glance it seems fairly straightforward: Joseph Smith apparently hired a teenaged Charles Stoddard to work at William Law’s house and “keep the prophet posted” about William Law’s nefarious plans. And this boy witnessed William Law’s attempt to kill Joseph Smith, as well as the prophet’s fearless response.

But, an LDS friend said elsewhere, “I am quite certain that this entry—and indeed the whole diary—is a forgery.” He summarizes his reasons as follows:

If you check out the whole diary (which is suspiciously short) I think you’ll notice that it reads like bad fiction. Nothing in it is credible. All of the characters are broadly drawn caricatures (especially William Law, who, unlike his real-life counterpart, is here a foul-mouthed drunkard). I think it was probably written in the early 20th century, based on expressions like “umpteenth” (which first came into use around the turn of the 20th century and gained prominence after WW1), “keep your eyes and ears open”, and “faith promoting experience” (which, as far as I can tell, did not enter the Mormon lexicon until the 1880s). “Keep him posted” also seems out of place for 1844.

Robert H. Daines described the provenance of the diary in a 2000 BYU devotional: “I should like to share with you an entry from the diary of my great-great grandmother. This is a record of a little-known experience of the Prophet Joseph—little known because this diary was lost for 30 to 40 years in my mother’s home in New Jersey. It was only rediscovered as they were preparing to move back to Utah in the late 1970s. This is a diary entry of Sister Sarah Stoddard.” My guess is that it was created ca. 1920-1930.

Admittedly, I am not that clever to have thought of the word usage, but he’s right that some of the words and phrases did not arise in the English language until much later than 1844. “Umpteenth,” for example, dates to World War I.

I’d never used Google’s Ngram Viewer before, but it can tell you how often a word is used over time, based on its text database of books. For example, we can chart when the following words became widely used in English:

In short, I learned something, and not just that the account of William Law trying to shoot Joseph Smith is likely bogus. I think I could have fun with the Ngram Viewer.

 

 


Concise Dictionary of Mormonism So Far …

March 17, 2015

A while back I started putting together a satiric “Concise Dictionary of Mormonism,” sort of a take-off on Bruce R. McConkie’s “Mormon Doctrine,” though more concise and with less racism. I got distracted and never finished, but I did promise some friends I would finish. So, I will get back on it. In the meantime, here are the entries so far:

A
B
C
D
E
F
G
H
I
J
K
L
M (part 1)
M (part 2)
N
O


52 Questions That Might Lead You to Mormonism

March 16, 2015

  1. Why does God give some people brown skin?
  2. How many shares does God want me to buy in a hotel and at what price?
  3. What is my “little factory,” and what does it mean to tamper with it?
  4. What does it mean to be “used up”?
  5. What’s so special about Missouri?
  6. Where does the sun get its light?
  7. Was Martin Luther King part of a Communist conspiracy?
  8. Why do Native Americans look so much like Jews?
  9. If a spirit appears to me, how can I tell it’s an angel and not a demon?
  10. If God had a couple of billion dollars sitting around, what would he do with it?
  11. What kind of underwear does God want me to wear?
  12. What is the Egyptian word for the Sun?
  13. Is it wrong to try to have a personal relationship with Jesus?
  14. Is a seer stone used for finding buried treasure, translating scripture, or both?
  15. I’m a married man, and I’d like to have sex with another woman without my wife finding out about it. Is that OK with God?
  16. Is there some kind of secret handshake you need to get into heaven?
  17. Should clergy be paid, or only the ones at the top of the hierarchy?
  18. Is this man a dodo?
  19. To reach the “tree of life” and everlasting joy, are we supposed to hold onto an iron rod or a rope?
  20. Does God preserve scriptural records for 1,400 years so that eventually they will be translated by someone who doesn’t actually use them in the translation?
  21. Can we get rid of the italicized words in the King James Bible?
  22. Are gay people happier if they remain celibate?
  23. Should churches ever apologize for their mistakes?
  24. I like to re-enact disastrous journeys, such as that of the Donner party. Where can I find likeminded people?
  25. Does God have a penis?
  26. Does the Godhead consist of 2 or 3 personages?
  27. Should people of different races marry each other?
  28. In the nineteenth century, how common was it for a married man in his late thirties to marry a teenager without his wife’s knowledge or consent?
  29. Is it OK with God for prophets to borrow millions of dollars from the funds of the true church?
  30. When the Lord establishes a bank through His prophet, how long should we expect it to stay in business?
  31. What does “carnal intercourse” mean?
  32. If I have to choose between following my conscience or obeying a religious leader, which one should I choose?
  33. How many earrings are appropriate in each ear?
  34. If I do an act of charity, should I do it quietly or should I do something to attract attention to myself, such as wearing a bright yellow shirt?
  35. If the natural man is an enemy to God, does that mean gays are God’s friends because their desires are unnatural?
  36. Which one was Jesus: Quetzalcoatl or Wiracocha?
  37. How, where, and when did Arthur Patton die?
  38. Where can I find an organization that will help me find happiness in conformity?
  39. What were Joseph Smith and Fanny Alger doing in the barn?
  40. When is steel not actually steel?
  41. Is “ofin Zimim ezmon E, Zu onis i f s veris etzer ensvonis vineris” Hebrew?
  42. Is it ever OK to criticize a religious leader?
  43. Is Anubis a slave?
  44. Does God approve of oral sex?
  45. Is it ever appropriate to lie to the police?
  46. Where does God live?
  47. Are organizations that have secret rites and oaths good or bad?
  48. Should women have an education and career, or should they stay home and have lots of babies?
  49. If the Holy Spirit tells me to kill someone, should I use a sword or a knife?
  50. Are there any moral absolutes?
  51. How badly do I need to believe in things that are not so?

Bonus question: Which is worse: decaffeinated coffee or caffeinated soda?

If you enjoyed this list, you might also like the Concise Dictionary of Mormonism.


Melissa Lott Willes: A Different Story

March 13, 2015

I stumbled across this account from Joseph Smith III of an interview he had with Melissa Lott Willes (he has her last name as “Willis”) in Lehi, Utah, in 1885. It’s strikingly different from Melissa’s testimony in the Temple Lot case, and it differs substantially from her own account of the interview. In the Temple Lot testimony, she specifically denies Smith’s version of the interview, saying that what she told him was the same as what she testified to under oath. I will make no comment about the veracity of Smith’s account other than to note the careful construction of his questions. And I will say that his portrayal of a weepy, timid woman contrasts rather sharply with the quick-witted and self-confident woman reflected in the court testimony.

In the evening we held a service in the Music Hall of the city [Lehi, Utah]. We went early to the room and were met and welcomed by a number of our own members, as well as other friends and citizens. In chatting before the services somebody came and told me that Mrs. Ira Willis was present. I referred to this woman in the early part of these Memoirs.

This news was of interest for I had frequently been told that she, who used to be Melissa Lott, claimed to have been a wife to my father and would so testify, and that I would not dare to visit and interview her for she would tell me unwelcome things. I had, of course, seen the affidavits which she and others made, published by Joseph F. Smith to bolster up his statement that Father had more wives than one.

I at once went to Mrs. Willis, was introduced, and promptly asked the privilege of calling upon her for an interview. This permission she very cordially granted. (The Memoirs of President Joseph Smith III (1832-1914), p.244)

By appointment I went to the home of Mrs. Willis at ten o’clock on the Tuesday following our meeting in the Music Hall. As I have already stated in connection with this woman, she was a daughter of Cornelius P. Lott, a man who had come to Nauvoo from the East, his family consisting of wife, sons John and baby Peter, and daughters Melissa, Martha, Mary, and Alzina. They lived in a house on the farm belonging to Father, just east of the city, and I knew them all in a general way. I was fairly well acquainted with Melissa and with her history and movements up to the time of their departure from Nauvoo, when they all emigrated to Utah.

Melissa married Ira Willis, as I have related—a kind, shrewd Yankee and most excellent man. I had heard that they had had two sons, but when I went to call on her she was living alone. One son had died as he approached manhood, and the husband and the other son had together met death in an accident occurring when they were coming down from the mountains with a load of wood. So she was left a widow and childless at the same time.

Her home was a one-room cottage, and when bidden to enter I found her sitting by the fireside preparing things for the midday meal. It was an old-fashioned fireplace such as I was used to seeing, with broad hearth and wide-throated chimney in which were the traditional hooks to support the kettles swung over the fire, the big dogs on which the logs rested, and nearby the fireshovel, tongs, and poker. Ira Willis had always been a thrifty and handy man-of-all-work and loved to make and provide many conveniences and accessories for his home. I have told how Ira Willis once released my tongue from a frosty axe by pouring warm water on the imprisoned member. He had a hearty laugh at my expense, and for several hours I nursed an extra mouthful of swollen tongue. Mother too had laughed at the occurrence when she heard of it and told me it would be well for me if I could learn some things without trying too many experiments for myself! I have never forgotten that instance and even today, as I retell the story, my stenographer and I have had a hearty laugh over the predicament of an excited boy rushing into the house with his tongue glued to a frosted axe!

I was well received by Mrs. Willis whom I knew by the old familiar name of Melissa. I told her I had a great desire to talk with her for I had been informed she knew things I would not dare to question her about. I said I wanted to know the truth, whatever it was, and believed that in answer to my questions she would be willing to tell me what she knew.

She answered that she would be glad to grant the interview, but explained that some unexpected company was coming for lunch and she would prefer if I could call in the afternoon instead, when she would be more at liberty and with leisure for a conversation. Of course this was agreeable to me, and after exchanging a few reminiscences I left her.

Returning in the afternoon I found her guests had gone, and she was ready for a chat, willing, as she said, to answer any question I would ask about conditions in Nauvoo of which she had any knowledge. I began by asking:

“Did you know of the teaching of plural marriage or polygamy at Nauvoo?”

“I had heard of it in private but not publicly.”

“Did you know of any woman having been married to, my father and living with him as his wife, besides my mother?”

“No; and nothing of the kind occurred to my knowledge.”

“Do you have any reason to believe such a thing took place and that my mother knew of there being another woman besides herself who was wife to my father?”

“No,” quite emphatically, “I am sure she did not.”

“Now, Melissa, I have been told that there were women, other than my mother, who were married to my father and lived with him as his wife, and that my mother knew it. How about it?”

She answered rather tremulously, “If there was anything of that kind going on you may be sure that your mother knew nothing about it.”

I then asked her what was her opinion of my mother’s character for truth and veracity. She replied that she considered my mother one of the noblest women in the world, and that she had known her well and knew her to be as good and truthful a woman as ever lived.

“Then you think I would be justified in believing what my mother told me?”

“Yes, indeed, for she would not lie to you.”

“Well, Melissa, my mother told me that my father had never had any wife other than herself, had never had any connection with any other woman as a wife, and was never married to any woman other than herself, with her consent or knowledge, or in any manner whatsoever. Do you consider I am justified in believing her?”

Without hesitation she answered, “If your mother told you any such thing as that you may depend upon what she said and feel sure she was telling the truth, and that she knew nothing about any such state of affairs. Yes, you would be entirely justified in believing her.”

Our conversation continued for some time. Finally I asked, plainly, “Melissa, will you tell me just what was your relation to my father, if any?”

She arose, went to a shelf, and returned with a Bible which she opened at the family record pages and showed me a line written there in a scrawling handwriting:

“Married my daughter Melissa to Prophet Joseph Smith—” giving the date, which I seem to remember as late in 1843.

I looked closely at the handwriting and examined the book and other entries carefully. Then I asked:

“Who were present when this marriage took place—if marriage it may be called?”

“No one but your father and myself.”

“Was my mother there?”

“No, sir.”

“Was there no witness there?”

“No, sir.”

“Where did it occur?”

“At the house on the farm.”

“And my mother knew nothing about it, before or after?”

“No, sir.”

“Did you ever live with my father as his wife, in the Mansion House in Nauvoo, as has been claimed?”

“No, sir.”

“Did you ever live with him as his wife anywhere?” I persisted.

At this point she began to cry, and said, “No, I never did; but you have no business asking me such questions. I had a great regard and respect for both your father and your mother. I do not like to talk about these things.”

“Well, Melissa, I have repeatedly been told that you have stated that you were married to my father and lived with him as his wife and that my mother knew of it. Now you tell me you never did live with him as his wife although claiming: to have been married to him. You tell me there was no one present at that purported marriage except the three of you and that my mother knew nothing about such an alliance. Frankly, I am at a loss to know just what you would have me believe about you.”

I was about to make still closer inquiries in order to find out if she ever had any relations of any sort with my father other than the ordinary relations that may properly exist between such persons under the usual conditions of social procedure, when just then there came a rap on the door, and in walked her sisters Mary and Alzina.

Alzina lived rather near Melissa, but Mary, the older, was living some twenty-five or thirty miles away. Hearing I was in Lehi she had hitched up her team andt come to see me, stopping at Alzina’s on the way and bringing her along.

They expressed great pleasure in meeting me again, and I was glad to see them. Our talk was general for a while, for their entrance had changed my line of inquiry somewhat. Then, urged to put to Melissa a question of importance, I asked:

“Melissa, do you know where I can find a brother or a sister, child or children of my father, born to him by some woman other than my mother—in Illinois, Utah, or anywhere else?”

She answered that she did not, whereupon Mary broke in and said:

“No, Brother Joseph, for there isn’t any!”

Then she went on to say, “For twelve years I have made it my business to run down every rumor I have heard about the existence of children born to the Prophet by those women who were reputed to have been his wives. I have traveled a good many miles here and there for the purpose of finding out the truth about such statements, and not in one single instance have I ever found them substantiated or any evidence presented that had the least bit of truth in it. I have never been able to find a single child which could possibly have been born to Joseph Smith in plural marriage.”

At this juncture Alzina snapped in with an explosive and characteristic exclamation:

“No, Brother Joseph, there is none, and what’s more, I don’t believe there ever was any chance for one!”

The earnestness of her manner and the snap with which she pointed her remark caused a ripple of laughter among us, in which, however, Melissa did not join. Noticing this, I turned to her and said:

“Melissa, how about it? You hear what your sisters are saying?”

Tears began to trickle down her face as she said, “Yes, Brother Joseph, I hear them.”

“Well, what do you say? Can I believe as they do?”

She drew a deep breath, as if making a sudden decision, and then, with a sigh with lips trembling:

“Yes; you can believe that they are telling you the truth. There was no chance for any children.”

Mary then explained in more detail about certain places she had gone to make inquiries directly of the persons involved (whom she named) and to see the women and the children who, it was stated, were wives and offspring of the Prophet. She said in every instance she proved the report false, either as to the woman claiming to be such a wife or as to children being there as claimed.

I thanked her and the other girls for the statements they had made. Our conversation on this and other topics continued for some time. We recalled many incidents of old times, and I learned from them of the deaths of their parents and the whereabouts and fortunes of others of the family.

I left these sisters feeling well repaid for my persistence in obtaining the interview with Mrs. Willis. In spite of what I had been told, she had neither been able to “face me down” nor to convince me that my father had done reprehensible things which I would be unwilling to believe. Instead, I left her presence and that of her sisters with my previous convictions more firmly established, if such a thing were possible. The interview had convinced me that the statement made in an affidavit of this Melissa Lott Willis, published by Joseph F. Smith along with others of similar import, to the effect that she had been married to Joseph Smith, was not true, provided the word married be construed as conveying the right of living together as man and wife, a relation she had unequivocally denied in my presence. I was convinced that wherever the word married or sealed occurred in such testimonials regarding my father it meant nothing more than that possibly those women had gone through some ceremony or covenant which they intended as an arrangement for association in the world to come, and could by no means have any reference whatever to marital rights in the flesh.

I was also convinced from the statements of Mrs. Willis that the entry in the Bible which she showed to me was a line written by her father, or some other person, recording an untruth. When I asked her in plain language how it happened she had not lived with my father as his wife if she had really been married to him, she had answered in equally plain language, that she had not lived with him in that manner because it was not right that she should do so.

I had made up my mind when I went to Utah that whenever and wherever I found opportunity I would converse with those women who had claimed, or were reputed, to be wives of my father— wives in polygamy, plural marriage, celestial, sealed, or any kind of arrangement—and in so doing I would subject them to as severe a cross examination as was within my power, to get as near as possible to the actual truth of the circumstances and the reports. It was for this reason I had called upon this woman, and I should have questioned her still further and in a more specific manner had not the entrance of her sisters turned the trend of conversation in a measure.

After my visit south, to Beaver, we passed through Lehi again on our way back to Salt Lake City, at which time I tried to have another conversation with Mrs. Willis, but learned she was not at home. I knew it would have been entirely useless to question her in the presence of an elder of their church as she would either evade my questions or refuse utterly to answer. Indeed, it is possible she may have been so far under domination and surveillance as to have stated, in such a contingency, that which was not true. As it was, I felt I had secured truthful statements from her, for she had betrayed some real depths of emotion as we conversed. She had stated that I might believe what my mother had told me for she regarded my mother as an honest, upright woman who was absolutely truthful. She had also stated that notwithstanding the “marriage” entry scribbled in her Bible, purported to be written by her father, she had not lived with Joseph Smith as his wife, believing it was “not right” to do so, and further, that he had never urged her to do so. I had also learned from her and her sisters that so far as their knowledge went there had been no issue of any polygamous marriages made by Joseph Smith, such as had been alleged. (The Memoirs of President Joseph Smith III (1832-1914), pp. 245-246)


Polygamy Sources: Joseph Bates Noble

March 13, 2015

Here is some of the testimony of Joseph Bates Noble (1810-1900), who married Joseph Smith to Louisa Beaman, who was Noble’s sister-in-law. Some background:

I’ve included some testimony that isn’t entirely relevant just because it gives you a good idea of his temperament. It may seem like I’m over-using ellipses, but I am skipping a lot of repeated questions and discussions of objections

I should note that almost every question is followed by an objection in the original, so I skipped them. They all read something like this:

Counsel for the plaintiff objects to the question asked the witness on the ground that it is incompetent, irrelevant and immaterial, and not relevant to any of the issues of this case and pleading.

Needless to say, I didn’t feel like including that over and over, and I figured readers wouldn’t want to wade through it, either.

29 Q-I asked you to state to the reporter Mr. Noble, what you know if anything about the doctrine of plural marriage, sometimes or commonly called “polygamy” being taught or practiced in the church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, of which you were and are a member, at Nauvoo, during the life of of Joseph Smith, the prophet?
A-Yes sir, it was taught by Joseph Smith.

31 Q-[State] where the doctrine of plural marriage was taught at Nauvoo before the death of Joseph Smith?
A-What is that?
34 Q-Never mind his objection, but just answer the question as soon as he gets through with his Objection,-give him time to make his Objection and then go ahead and answer the question.
A-Well it was at my house.
35 Q-Who taught the doctrine of plural marriage at your house?
A-Joseph Smith the prophet did.
38 Q-I asked you to state to the reporter what you know in regard to Joseph’s teaching or practicing the doctrine of plural marriage during his lifetimes there in Nauvoo,-what you know about that further than what you have stated?
A-Well he taught it in my house and practiced it also.
39 Q-Was any one present at the time that Joseph Smith taught the principle of plural marriage that you refer to?
A-Yes sir.
40 Q-Who was present at the time he taught that principle?
A-My wife’s sister.
41 Q-Who was that?
A-Louisa Beaman.
42 Q-Was there any others? A-Yes sir, there was some of my own family there, but they were young at that time.
43 Q-Were you ever present when any one was married under this plural marriage doctrine, as taught by Joseph Smith?
A-Yes sir.
45 Q-Mr. Hall asked you to state the circumstances under which you were present and saw any one married under the operations of this plural marriage doctrine or principle, as I understand it?
A-It bothers me to call us these things. I feel so feeble. Well I was present one time and performed the marriage ceremony giving him my wife’s sister.
46 Q-Who did you marry?
A-Louisa Beaman to the prophet.
48 Q-You married Louisa Beaman to the prophet Joseph Smith?
A-Yes sir.
49 Q-About what year was this?
A-In ’41 or close to it. Now that is my best recollection.
50 Q-When did the prophet Joseph Smith first teach you that doctrine?
A-He taught me that doctrine in ’40. It was in ’40 or about that time,-that is my best recollection.
51 Q-Where were you living when you were first taught that doctrine?
A-I was living in Montrose in Lee County, Iowa, right across the river opposite Nauvoo.
52 Q-Do you know whether Joseph Smith ever lived any with Louisa Beaman as his wife?
A-Yes sir.
53 Q-You may state how you know it?
A-I know it for I saw him in bed with her.

115 Q-You don’t know much this morning only about polygamy and Joseph Smith’s connection with it, and you know all about that?
A-Well that forces it upon me more particularly.
116 Q-Is it because you have been connected with that crime,-with the commission of that crime yourself?
A-Yes sir, I expect so.
117 Q-You know all about polygamy.
A-I expect I do.
118 Q-And your conscience is gnawing you?
A-Yes sir, It has a terrible gnawing fit on it this morning.
119 Q-You feel very bad over it, don’t you?
A-Over what?
120 Q-Is it not a fact that you feel very bad over your sins in connection with polygamy?
A-Not much, thank you.

341 Q-Answer the question,-it was according to the law of doctrine and covenants that any minister could marry you and perform the marriage ceremony?
A-Yes sir, of course it was.
342 Q-You could get any one to do that?
A-Yes sir, you could call on whom you liked.
343 Q-That was the doctrine of the church, wasn’t it?
A-No sir.
344 Q-It was not?
A-No sir.
345 Q-Well what was it?
A-There was no doctrine about it,-it was simply the practice. We were not after doctrine at such a time as that.
346 Q-You were after the women weren’t you? A-Yes sir, we were after women and we got them too, and that is more than some men can do now a days. I was after a wife and I know I got her.
347 Q-You got your first wife in 1838?
A-Yes sir.
348 Q-You commenced hunting a wife in 1838 now when did you quit hunting them?
A-Quit?
349 Q-Yes sir,-that is what I asked you.
A-I don’t know as I have quit yet.

380 Q-Well when did you go to Nauvoo to live?
A-Well it is my best recollection that we went there about 1841.
381 Q-That is when you first heard the doctrine of polygamy talked,-when you went over to Nauvoo to live in 1841 was the time when you first heard that doctrine talked was it not?
A-Well I don’t know about that.
384 Q-Well it was some time in ’41 wasn’t it that you first heard it talked of, when you went over to Nauvoo to live?
A-Yes sir, I heard of it then I guess, but I had heard of it before that time, and afterwards too I guess.
384 [sic] Q-Well where and when did you hear of it before?
A-I heard of it in ’40 I guess.
386 Q-In 1840 you say you heard of it?
A-Yes sir.
387 Q-Where did you hear of it then?
A-Let me see where I was then,-I was over there in Montrose I guess.
392 Q-Now did you hear anything about the church denouncing such a practice at any time between 1840 and 1844,-at any time between these dates?
A-I don’t recollect much about that.
393 Q-Well do you recollect anything about it?
A-Not the date,-of course there were rumors and talks,-I could not begin to say or tell all that I heard for there was so much talk going on there.
394 Q-Don’t you know that the church as a church did denounce it between 1840 and 1844?
395 Q-Answer the question,-don’t you know that too?
A-How is that? Know what?
396 Q-I asked if you did not know that the church did denounce the practice of polygamy or the plural or secret wife system between 1840 and 1844? Answer the question? Are you going to answer the question?
A-Be patient. I am trying to call up these things. It was in ’44 that the prophet died. That was the time of the death of the prophet I believe. My head feels so bad and I feel bad all over too.
397 Q-It feel worse than it did when you was being examined by Hall, don’t it?
A-Well I don’t know.
398 Q-Don’t you know that the church did denounce it and publish it, and by resolution it was put in the book of doctrine and covenants. Don’t you know that?
A-The dates is what bothers me you see. I can’t remember dates at all any more.
399 Q-Well you know it was denounced by the church at some time, don’t you?
400 Q-The church did denounce the system of polygamy or its practice did it not at some time, at that too before the death of Joseph Smith?
A-The trouble with me is that I can’t date it.

[Attorney tries very hard to get Noble to admit that monogamy, as outlined in the Doctrine and Covenants, was the law of the church during Joseph Smith’s life.]

415 Q-Then you say you did not know this was the law of the church at the time that Joseph Smith died, when you were a bishop, and a high priest and elder, and sat there to teach the people what the law of the church was?
A-I was not much of a scholar, and I guess I did not go to the book.
416 Q-Then you did not teach the law of the church out of the book?
A-I guess not.
417 Q-Why not?
A-I guess I had enough without.
418 Q-You had enough to teach without going to the book for your law,-you knew enough without that?
A-Yes sir, I suppose so.
419 Q-Well what did you teach,-this law or some other law?
A-I taught every man to mind his own business devilish close.

424 Q-Did you teach publicly or privately there at Nauvoo that a man could have more wives than one?
A-I did not.
425 Q-You did not teach that either publicly or privately?
A-No sir, I did not teach anything of the kind.
426 Q-Why not?
A-Because it was not taught publicly,-it was a private matter.
427 Q-Then you did not teach it?
A-No sir, I guess not,-not much I did not teach it. I don’t think I did but I can’t remember. My head hurts me when I try to think of these things that I can’t remember.
428 Q-When I ask you these questions it makes your head hurt?
A-Sir?
429 Q-It did not make your head hurt a little bit when Hall asked you these questions?
A-It did some.
430 Q-It made it hurt some, but not as bad as when I ask you the same question?
A-You ask so many foolish nonsensical questions that it would make anybody’s head hurt to answer them I think.

433 Q-Well then answer the question as to whether you taught that a man could have more wives than one?
A-No sir, I don’t think I did teach that.
434 Q-Well if that was the doctrine and practice of the church, why didn’t you teach it?
A-Well I guess it wasn’t safe for a man to do so, and you had to be careful what you taught.

[Attorney gets exasperated when trying to get Noble to say whether Joseph Smith taught plural marriage during his lifetime.]

444 Q-Well I am not asking you a thing on earth about the date,-I put at any time before his death,-at any time from 1830 up to 1844. Pick your own time any where within these limits?
A-Yes sir, the principle was taught.
445 Q-Taught to the church was it?
A-It was taught privately.

448 Q-Did he teach it publicly or privately?
A-Privately I think it was.
449 Q-Did he teach it to the church?
A-To individuals in the church. There is no doubt of that. I guess I had better put it that way.

456 Q-You know that he did not teach it to the church as a church either publicly or privately, don’t you?  Don’t you? Don’t you know that?
A-I know that he taught it to individuals in the church.
[Noble complains that Kelley “holler[s] so loud that it makes my head hurt.” Kelley is exasperated and asks again whether Joseph Smith taught the principle of plural marriage.]
467 … A-He taught things to the church, that unless the key was turned on their minds you could not know a darned thing about what he was driving at.
468 Q-Well I move to strike out all that answer except the word “darned.”
A-What a comfortable place this is for a sick fellow.

489 Q-And let the record show that the party that uses such language is an elder in this church out here in Utah?
A-Yes sir, let the record show that. Oh I don’t wrap a Pharisaical coat around me and say I am not like that other fellow, for I swear frequently when I am driven to it. I have sworn or affirmed before this frequently when I was on the stand, for I am rather a plain dealer, or used to be. I don’t like to do it though, for it is not right you know, but we are all weak, and I am especially so perhaps.

628 Q-At whose house [was Joseph Smith married to Louisa Beaman]?
A-At mine.

634 Q-Well [Louisa Beaman] was present at that time wasn’t she? She was present at the time?
A-Well she would be very likely to be present, I think.

648 Q-Was that sealing for time and eternity?
A-For time and eternity.

669 Q-Did you not claim that Joseph was higher than the law?
A-Joseph?
670 Q-Yes sir?
A-Well we received the law through him.
671 Q-And that he was higher than the law? You thought that didn’t you?
A-Well what if I did?
672 Q-Well answer the question,-did you not claim and think that he was higher than the law?
A-Well he was the law.
673 Q-He was the law himself, according to your way of thinking?
A-Well he gave us the law.
674 Q-You believe that didn’t you,-that he was the law?
A-Well he was the one that restored the priesthood to earth.
675 Q-Well was he the law of the church?
A-He gave the law to the church.
676 Q-Well was he the law of the church?
A-He had to do with it any way.
677 Q-Well he made the law didn’t he?
A-He received it from the Lord all right enough.
678 Q-Q-Now you are positive that it was before ’43 that you performed this marriage ceremony marrying Joseph Smith and Louisa Beaman? You are sure of that are you not?
A-Yes sir.

680 Q-You performed the ceremony and returned across the river the same night did you not?
A-Yes sir.
681 Q-What made you say the other day that Joseph Smith and that woman you sealed to him slept together that night?
A-Because they did sleep together.
682 Q-If you were not there that night how do you know they slept together?
A-Well they slept together I know. If it was not that night it was two or three nights after that.
683 Q-Where did they sleep together?
A-Right straight across the river at my house they slept together.

686 Q-You said the other day that the night you married them they slept together, and now today you say after you married them you went across the river and did not stay there that night? Now I want you to answer the plain square question. Did he sleep with her the first night after the ceremony was performed?
A-He did.
687 Q-Now you say that he did sleep with her?
A-I do.
688 Q-How do you know he did?
A-Well I was there.
689 Q-And you saw them go to bed together?
A-I gave him counsel.
690 Q-What counsel did you give him?
A-I said “blow out the lights and get into bed, and you will be safer there,” and he took my advice or counsel. (witness laughs heartily.)
693 Q-You went across the river did you not,-is that not what you said?
A-Yes sir, but I told him that.

695 Q-Well when was it you told him that?
A-It was in the night time.
700 Q-Well did you stay there until the lights were blown out?
A-No sir I did not stay until they blowed out the lights then.
701 Q-Well you did not see him get into bed with her that time?
A-No sir.
702 Q-And so you don’t know whether he followed your advice from your own knowledge?
A-No sir, I did not see him, but he told me he did.
703 Q-But you don’t know it of your own knowledge from seeing him do it?
A-No sir, I think not.

705 Q-Was Emma Smith there?
A-No sir.
706 Q-Did she know anything about it?
A-No sir, I think not.
726 Q-Well do you not know, or did you ever know of any women who were taken as plural wives, before they became members of the church?
A-Well I expect as a rule they took a soaking beforehand.

789 Q-There was no license, was there, issued by the clerk of the court, or by any body else for the marriage?
A-For the marriage, did you say?
790 Q-Yes sir,-to marry Joseph Smith to Louisa Beaman,-for sealing her to him?
A-No sir.
791 Q-Why not?
A-Well we did not have to use them in marriages of that kind,-that was a marriage performed in the church, and it was a secret marriage as I told you many a time.
792 [Q-]Was that marriage performed under the law or the color of law?
A-Yes sir.
793 [Q-]Now where was your law for that marriage or sealing,-where did you get it?
A-I got it all right,-right from the prophet himself. That is where I got it.
794 Q-He just told you it was necessary for him to have Louisa Beaman?
A-Yes sir.
795 Q-And asked you to seal her to him?
A-Yes sir.
796 Q-And you did it?
A-Yes sir.
797 Q-You took his word for it?
A-Yes sir.
798 Q-And you did not hesitate about it?
A-No sir, I took his word for it quicker than scat.
799 Q-And you sealed him to her?
A-I sealed her to him and I did a good job too.
800 Q-There was no revelation for it?
A-I don’t know anything about the revelations.
801 Q-You don’t know anything about whether there was any revelation for it,-any revelation authorizing it or not,-you just took his word for it?
A-Yes sir. He said it was all right and I believed him.
802 Q-Did you perform it in accordance with this revelation published in the book of Doctrine and Covenants,-published by your church here in Utah?
A-No sir.
803 Q-I mean this polygamous revelation?
A-No sir.
804 Q-This was not in existence at that time was it?
A-I don’t know whether it was or not.
805 Q-Well it is dated here in 1843,-was it in existence at the time that you married Louisa Beaman to Joseph Smith?
A-I don’t know anything about it, and I don’t care a darned thing about it either.
806 Q-That is another of the things that you don’t care a darned thing about too?
A-Yes sir, you can have it that way if you want it that way.
807 Q-Well is that not just what you said?
A-I expect it is,-you are enough to badger the life out of a fellow, and I kind of lose my temper sometimes, but I will try and bear with you.
808 Q-Don’t that revelation say that the first wife of a man must give her consent to it before he can marry a plural wife,-must take the plural wife by the hand and give her to her husband as a wife before the ceremony can be celebrated?
809 Q-Is that not what the commandment says?
A-I don’t know anything about what it says.
810 Q-You don’t know as a matter of fact, whether there was any revelation at the time that you married Louisa Beaman to Joseph Smith, or not?
A-No sir, I don’t know anything about it, only I had it kind of stuck in me that there was.
811 Q-The Lord stuck it into you?
A-Yes sir, I expect so and he has stuck it in me that I must fight my way through with you,-I see that plainly enough. Oh you are not the only cross I have had to bear in my time, and I guess I will out-last you, so you go ahead, for I am tough,-tougher than I look, perhaps.

816 Q-Who did you consult after you left the witness stand here the other day?
A-Nobody.
817 Q-Did you not consult with Woodruff?
A-No sir, I did not consult with him or anybody else, nor has anybody insulted me only you.


Guest Post: An Invitation for Meg Stout

March 12, 2015

An active LDS reader sent me this, as he was frustrated in not being allowed to respond over on Millennial Star. As I’ve mentioned, I have a very open comments policy: I don’t block anything that isn’t spam, obscene, or grossly insulting to other commenters (obviously, people are quite free to insult me at any time, and they do.)

I’m continually impressed with the education, wisdom, and intellect of people who read this blog. I think Millennial Star missed out in not posting this. But, I need to make clear that I did not write this post, I don’t take any credit for it, and the opinions expressed are its author’s.

An Invitation to Meg Stout

On her blog, Meg recently posted an essay, “Joseph’s Wives – an Algorithm,” which was in response to something I said to her first in a private email discussion, and then again publicly in the comments on John’s blog.

TDLR: Sexless marriage arguments based on lack of DNA-proven children are weak and need a probabilistic model to become persuasive. Meg’s algorithm/model isn’t; it’s junk science, a table of made-up numbers that mean nothing. If she would like assistance with the math, formulating a real model, happy to help.

Context

First I should set the context for all this. By email Meg said to me:

Yeah, Hales and the Prices aren’t known as the most objective historians. As for me, I went into my journey presuming that Joseph had been a full-blooded sexual partner to many of his wives. But it was the scientific data that persuaded me that he likely wasn’t.

Quick aside: For those unfamiliar, she is referring to Ugo Perego, an LDS biologist, who has tried to find children fathered by Joseph Smith through DNA analysis. So far, no conclusive DNA proof has been found which links Joseph to any of the children born to his polygamous wives.

My response to this was:

As I understand it the DNA evidence hasn’t ruled out Joseph having fathered any children, it simply hasn’t been able to prove that he conclusively did. A notable data point but I don’t really find this very persuasive. It’s not evidence of absence. We could speculate quite a large number of good reasons why there aren’t any children. Actually, I think in terms of probability it’s unlikely Joseph would have gotten many, if any, of his plural wives pregnant.

Meg then said to me:

The instances that can be tested have all yielded proof that Joseph could not have been the father except for the case of Josephine Lyons, where the data makes Joseph’s paternity unlikely but not conclusively disproved (Josephine’s descendants have common ancestry with Lucy Mack and Joseph Smith Sr.). There is a reason Sylvia Lyons would have told Josephine Joseph was her father, which I have laid out. Ugo Perego is attempting to definitize that answer one way or the other.

It isn’t just Joseph. None of the polygamists in Nauvoo produced children with plural wives prior to Joseph’s death except:

Joseph Bates Noble (child born in Feb 1844)
William Clayton (child born in Feb 1844)

Things are starting to get interesting at this point. She’s arguing that not only did Joseph not father any children, but neither did any of the other polygamists. This is something I had never heard before. What’s interesting about this to me is that, if true, I think this would undermine her scientific evidence and underlying argument that the relationships didn’t involve sexual relations based on the lack of children.

I responded to this argument by saying:

I’m not sure some of your claims can be made. You say, “It isn’t just Joseph. None of the polygamists in Nauvoo produced children with plural wives prior to Joseph’s death except:” What you really mean is, “Other than this guy and that guy, we don’t have hard evidence to conclusively prove that any of the other polygamist unions produced children.” These are two very different statements.
For the lack of children, or more correctly the lack of proof of children, to be a persuasive argument, one would have to prove that children should be expected in the first place. Which hasn’t been done.

For instance, women have a relatively narrow window during which they can conceive. And even with consistent and regular tries, most women take months to get pregnant, and that’s by modern health standards. The environment during early polygamy was such that Joseph didn’t likely have many opportunities to engage in intercourse with his wives. With all the secrecy and such, keeping things hidden from Emma, liaisons would have been very infrequent.

Moreover, in general, polygamous wives were not in the best of spirits, sacred loneliness and all that. It’s a well established fact for instance that polygamous unions resulted in fewer children per woman than monogamous unions. That being the case, even when opportunities existed, it’s a fair bet the women might not have been “in the mood.”

All this makes for a situation where frankly I wouldn’t expect many children to be conceived, if any at all. And then of course we can also toss in miscarriages and infant mortality which would eliminate testable evidence of a child. A fun exercise might be to try and develop a probabilistic model to predict how many children we would expect Joseph to produce if unions had been sexual. Something like this would be necessary to persuasively argue that children should be expected in the first place.

Meg didn’t have a response to this. Until now.

Meg’s Algorithm

Taking me up on my suggestion to “develop a probabilistic model,” Meg created what she calls “an algorithm” to assess the importance of Joseph’s wives. She says:

I think we should establish guidelines for the importance we attribute to different women as wives…I’d like to start, then, with each such woman having a score of 100% (or 1.0). Then as we consider various factors, that score may be decreased. If there are mitigating factors, a “penalty” may be reduced. Thus, as I go forward to talk about the various women, we can focus on those individuals whose “score” gives us greatest confidence that she is of import. This scoring matter can also give structure to the discussion of each woman.

Here’s a proposed structure:…By this scoring system, Emma would score 100%.

Meg then treats us to a table of values that weight different things with a score, for instance “DNA negative” is given a score of -0.25, “Motive to lie” is given a score -0.06, and so on.

It’s important to note here that her “algorithm” is not meant to directly answer my question, “How many children should we reasonably expect if the unions were sexual?” Instead this “algorithm” is meant to give Joseph’s wives a kind of relevance score, from which I assume the history related to these women is then going to be ranked and weighted.

In other words, this is meant to be a mathematical justification for ignoring historical evidence, or something. This is how I’m interpreting what she’s doing here. Yikes.

My Motivation

Let me start by saying my motivation here is not to belittle Meg. I want that to be clear. I fear this may come across that way, though, because I am pointing out what should be obvious. Perhaps let the ramifications of that speak for itself. I am taking Meg at her word that she is, per her claim, a scientist and engineer. And maybe I misread her; perhaps she only meant that she has worked in the “science/engineering” industry, in which case I wouldn’t expect her to understand any of this. Either way, I do not presume to give her remedial math lessons. I don’t believe she needs such instruction.

I have two objectives.

One, I fear that lay readers (who don’t understand math) won’t understand what’s bad about her arguments. I assume that Meg knows her arguments are bad, but all this is fun for her. That’s my impression. In general I find Meg’s arguments (double-standard, logical fallacies) and behavior (censorship) to be dishonest.

Giving her the benefit of the doubt (no pun intended) I don’t think she’s being intentionally deceptive. I think she’s mostly just having fun, like a nerdy fan at a science fiction conference (see Galaxy Quest) engaging in wild speculation that isn’t meant to be taken too seriously. The debate is fun, and I sincerely appreciate that mindset.

At the same time, I think she’s a hypocrite. And I don’t mean that in a mean-spirited, name-calling kind of way, but a very calm observation that in my opinion she is not thinking critically or being introspective. However noble her intentions, she’s leading people astray, in my opinion. People are reading her material and taking her seriously. In its current form, her “algorithm” is pretty silly, and I have to believe Meg knows this, but I see this going in a bad direction.

Two, I’m genuinely interested in an answer to my question, a real and unbiased answer. A serious and credible answer. I’d like to see a legitimate model developed that can reasonably answer the question, “How many children should we expect Joseph to produce if the unions had been sexual?” Such a model might be completely inconclusive and results entirely flip based on assumptions that nobody can agree on. It could be, though, that even if we’re using the most faith-promoting of assumptions, children either weren’t likely to begin with, or they are unlikely enough that it amounts to the same, and the “no children = no sex” arguments immediately become irrelevant. My hunch is those arguments are (unfortunately) irrelevant.

If the opposite is true though and there’s a truly high probability of children, then that’s worth noting, and I would find it personally persuasive that Joseph didn’t have sex with these women. I am not biased towards a particular answer. I want the actual truth, whatever that may be. But, as a member of the LDS church who’s trying to be faithful, I would be very happy to learn that Joseph wasn’t as bad a guy with respect to polygamy as it’s currently reasonable to conclude. At a superficial level, I truly love Meg’s argument that the sexual dynamic of polygamy was a perversion mistakenly created by the ignorance of Brigham Young. If such a conclusion could be reasonably arrived at, I’d love it. Think of all the problems that could be solved by plucking section 132 out of the D&C and setting it on fire.

All that said, Meg’s “algorithm” is horrible.

Math Lesson

First, I would like to point out that Meg’s “algorithm” isn’t an algorithm at all. What Meg gives us is a table full of probabilities literally pulled out of thin air. That’s not an algorithm. I’m not sure what it is, nonsense mostly. An algorithm would be a step-by-step process for deriving the probabilities listed in her table. I would in fact love to see the algorithm she used to come up with those numbers. It could come in the form of a math equation, a description in English, or a programming language.

Wikipedia defines an algorithm as “a self-contained step-by-step set of operations to be performed. Algorithms exist that perform calculation, data processing, and automated reasoning.” Pulling one of my engineering textbooks off the shelf, it describes the word “algorithm” as a “term used to in computer science to describe a finite, deterministic, and effective problem-solving method suitable for implementation as a computer program.” and then goes on to use Euclid’s algorithm, which computes the greatest common divisor or two numbers, as an example.

For example, an English-language description of Euclid’s algorithm is:

Compute the greatest common divisor of two non-negative integers p and q as follows: If q is 0, the answer is p. If not, divide p by q and take the remainder r. The answer is the greatest common divisor of q and r.

A Java-language description is then:

public static int gcd(int p, int q)
{
if(q == 0) return p;
int r == p % q;
return gcd(q, r);
}

That’s an algorithm. What Meg created is not an algorithm by any reasonable definition of the word. She has given us the output of some unknown algorithm that I assume exists only in her mind. It probably goes something like this: Make Joseph Look Good ==> Make Up Numbers.

Next I’d like to give a very simple example of what an actual probability problem looks like. This seems appropriate, as her table is listing probability values, and my original suggestion was that a probabilistic model should be developed in order to answer the question. This may seem off-topic, but just bear with me for this simple problem.

OK, so here’s my simple example:

Suppose 1% of a population has cancer. A new test for cancer shows positive 90% of the time when a person actually has cancer, and correctly indicates “negative” 95% of the time when run on someone who do not have cancer. This test is conducted on a person at a doctor’s office and the results come out positive. What is the probability that this person actually has cancer?

Baye’s rule is:

image00

The theorem is also sometimes referred to as the theorem on the probability of causes because it allows us to find the probabilities of various events A1, A2, …., An that cause event A to occur.

image03

From the problem we are given the following:

P(cancer|population) = 0.01

P(positive|cancer) = 0.9

P(negative|notcanter) = 0.95

From which we can then derive:

P(notcancer|population) = 1- P(cancer|population) = 0.99

P(positive|notcancer) = 1- P(positive|cancer) = 0.1

P(negative|cancer) = 1- P(negative|notcancer) = 0.05

So, if you go to the doctor and test positive for cancer, what is the probability that you actually have cancer? The answer might surprise you.

[+] = positive test result

image01

image02

8.33%!! No, that’s not a typo. So, for this particular population, if you get tested positive, your chances of actually having cancer are 8.33%. In other words, don’t freak out just yet. This may seem strange, but it’s not, if you think about it. In the case of this cancer test, even though our test is highly accurate (90%), there will still be a lot of false positives. So the probability of a false positive also has to be weighted, which makes the likelihood of a true positive quite low.

My point with this exercise is to demonstrate what an actual probability problem looks like and also to show how probabilities can be counterintuitive, especially for those who don’t understand mathematics and probability theory. Most people who get a positive cancer test are likely to freak out. Even understanding probability theory, I’d probably feel my stomach hit the floor upon hearing such a result. Calming down, however, and taking a moment to think about things critically, we shouldn’t be freaking out just yet. The result tells us we should do more testing, that is all.

For anybody interested in a deeper treatment of probability theory, here’s a link to one of my undergraduate textbooks which is available for free in PDF format.

http://www.faculty.jacobs-university.de/poswald/teaching/ESM2B/handouts/ProbabilityRandomProcessesBook.pdf

Here’s a chapter from the textbook Computer Analysis of Human Behavior, which will give you an idea of what probability theory looks like when applied to human behavior. This is more about gesture interpretation, but similar principles would apply to historical observations.

http://www.springer.com/cda/content/document/cda_downloaddocument/9780857299932-c2.pdf?SGWID=0-0-45-1214740-p174133703

Now, back to the original problem and question. Meg has not given us an algorithm or anything that even remotely resembles a probabilistic model. She has a table of made-up numbers. Behind each of those numbers should be a mathematical proof justifying how the number was arrived at. Why is motive to lie -0.06 for Emma Smith? But, what she has might be a useful starting point to come up with a list of features that should be included in a proper model. I’m sure if we ask a psychologist, the observation of lies is indicative of something and we could factor that into our model. Counting lies within a period of time could be a method of determining a trustworthiness feature, maybe. Then, based on that, we could reasonably add less credibility to the testimony of untrustworthy individuals we’re relying on. Meg might not like how these results turn out, though.

Invitation to Meg

If Meg is interested, I’d be happy to work with her (and/or any others) on developing a credible model that attempts to answer my question. I’m not used to applying probability theory to social science or history, but it should be an easy shift compared to what I’m used to, and I would find the prospect quite interesting. Frankly, I’m a bit surprised a model like this doesn’t already exist. I would have expected someone like Ugo Perego to have already created one, and maybe he has, if we ask him.

My starting approach would be to do some journal searches and see what kinds of models already exist with respect to fertility and what-not, and also seek out any relevant data I can use in my model. I think what I’d do is start out by just developing a model that determines the probability of a random male getting a random woman pregnant today from having intercourse once. P(child|sex) = ?

And then from there add relevant features which would alter the probability given the environment of polygamy, frequency, potential mindset of Joseph, etc. (such as, how well did people understand the calendar method back then?). What would result is a model that could be run based on varying assumptions. So the assumptions being fed into the model by someone like Meg or Brian Hales would likely be different than the assumptions of Richard Bushman or Dan Vogel or Grant Palmer.

One assumption might be that Joseph didn’t want the women to get pregnant and acted accordingly. Perhaps he was concerned about pregnancy for the single sisters, but not the already-married polyandrous ones. What is the probability that an average male in the 19th century could successfully employ the calendar method if he wanted it? What is the probability that Joseph would be the father of a child if a woman is having sex with two men at the same time? Even if Joseph didn’t care about getting anybody pregnant, what are chances he’d get them pregnant based on frequency of sex?

We could run the model based on different assumptions and see how the probability distribution changes. In the course of this, though, I’d want to consult with some bona fide experts on the history of polygamy so they can guide feature selection as well as tuning constants that we arrive at. For instance, how many opportunities for intercourse would Joseph have had per woman? I’m hoping the history buffs could come up with a calendar, and block out times when we know he’s not even in town, etc. I think we could come up with a model that could be applied individually to each plural wife and come up with a probability of children per wife, then sum those together to arrive at an overall likelihood of no children at all assuming that sex took place. How “impossible” is it that he fathered no children despite sex?

As I said earlier, it might be completely inconclusive, but it could tell us something. The results might be surprising, just as with the cancer test. Meg seems to think it’s intuitively obvious that if Joseph were having sex there should be children, but that has not been demonstrated to be true. It might also just be a useful exercise to see how reasonably we can employ mathematics as a tool for historical analysis. Putting together a proper model is something that will take time and a lot of consideration. I think starting out by developing a list of features is a good idea though.


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